IC Reporter Issue 16 (28 NOVEMBER - 11 DECEMBER 1995) Staff Newspaper of Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine

IC Reporter


Science, free spirits and women

I have often wondered why there are not more women academic staff members within the College. Even in departments such as biology and chemistry, which traditionally attract more women, the number decreases rapidly at higher levels. In disciplines such as engineering, the male:female staff ratio is pretty abysmal.

I have come to the conclusion that the low number of women academic staff members is due mainly to the rigid attitudes towards working practices throughout the College.

The science profession is seen by most scientists as a vocation which should take precedence over all other areas of life. Those who don’t fully commit themselves to their job (i.e. to the neglect of their families, friends and outside interests), are not seen as ‘dedicated’ scientists. This clearly has an impact on both men and women who are serious about their scientific careers, but who are trying to raise a family or who would like to have other commitments in general. These other commitments are seen as incompatible with an academic/ scientific career.

This requirement of total dedication has an impact in several areas. Part-time working, job-sharing and flexitime schemes are not in evidence and are not particularly encouraged. After all, why would anyone want to work part time? What could they possibly want to do in their spare-time, except more science? Another example is long working hours - many people are still in their offices until late in the evening, and this is seen as a desirable sign of dedication.

Of course it couldn’t possibly be due to the long business lunch they took, or the fact that they spent their morning on outside ‘consultancy’ business. If people choose to work this way, it should be their personal decision. It only becomes a problem when a very long working day becomes an accepted norm rather than an individual choice.

It is not just women with family (or other) commitments who find these working practices restrictive - anyone who doesn’t fit into the mould is going to face problems. The outcome is that it is the highly competitive, single-minded, ambitious people who get recognised and rewarded (i.e. promoted) for their dedication. There seems to be no mechanism for recognising that other working styles are also acceptable, and that people with other viewpoints can make significant contributions.

Collaboration with other staff members is also difficult when there is an atmosphere of competition (which is encouraged by heads of department, who want a good result in the research assessment exercise).

Of course, the attitudes of the staff must affect the students, who after all are the next generation of scientists. The end result is that we tend to produce students in our own fixed image, and generally discourage the ‘free spirited’ individuals, who see themselves perhaps as square pegs in a round hole. This is a great loss to science - after all, isn’t science concerned with creativity, invention and inspiration as well as logical analysis and methodical rigour?

There should be room for individuality, and this requires a flexible attitude in the minds of those who run the College.

(c) Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, 1995

Last Revised: 27 November 1995